"Get ready to root for the bad guy" trumpets the tag line for
PAYBACK, and for once the marketing people are on to something. Lots of
action films go the anti-hero route, offering protagonists with
single-sentence motivations who kill at least as many people as the
ostensible villains of the piece. The assumption is that we'll be on the
side of the star because...well, he's a star. It doesn't matter how nasty
or brutal Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal get -- if they're the
first name on the marquee, they're the ones whose gunplay and fisticuffs
Mel Gibson is a different case entirely. There has always been
something genuinely unstable behind his eyes when he wants there to be --
MAD MAX, the original LETHAL WEAPON, CONSPIRACY THEORY -- but also
something genuinely wounded that makes his instability as sympathetic as
it is menacing. Gibson uses that persona to solid effect as Porter, a
career thief in single-minded pursuit of revenge. It seems that Porter
was double-crossed by his partner Val (Gregg Henry) after a $140,000
heist, shot and left for dead so Val could square a debt with his
organized crime bosses. Five months later, Porter is healed and
determined to recover his share of the loot, even if it means taking on
the sociopathic Val, corrupt cops, the Chinese mafia and Val's bosses in
Along the way to his goal, Porter encounters plenty of intriguing
characters, which is half the fun of PAYBACK. Lucy Liu (from TV's "Ally
McBeal") dives into the role of a dominatrix who really enjoys her work;
James Coburn steals his few scenes as a dapper mid-level crime boss; Kris
Kristofferson uses his rasp-and-squint to appropriate effect as The
Outfit's capo di tutti capi. PAYBACK works in large part because it's not
just Mel Gibson running around shooting and getting shot at. The whole
atmosphere of the film is bleak and corrupt, from Ericson Core's bleached
cinematography to the cold brick of Richard Hoover's production design.
Though it comes with a dose of humor, it's usually humor of the black
variety, and the film rarely strays far from pulp crime thriller
That includes plenty of violence, of course, which is really the main
place where PAYBACK grows wearying. There's violence, and then there's
violence, and then there's PAYBACK, which never shies away from the
roughest rough stuff from the opening scene of un-anesthetized surgery.
Where a slap might suffice, a pistol-whipping shows up instead; where you
might expect a good old-fashioned roughing up, you can count on the
strategic application of a sledgehammer. Porter's world is certainly a
brutal one, and Porter himself is a brutal guy, but after a while it all
starts to feel like overkill. You reach the point where you don't need to
see Val beat up a woman and shoot a dog to figure out that he's not too
nice a guy.
Fortunately, it all comes back to Gibson, whose monomania about his
$70,000 makes just enough sense to keep the plot moving. There's a bit
too much effort directed towards making Porter seem sensitive through his
relationship with a high-priced call girl (Maria Bello) -- apparently the
result of Gibson's initial dissatisfaction with director and co-writer
Brian Helgeland's relentlessly dark tone -- but it all seems like
unnecessary effort. PAYBACK only works as entertainment because Gibson
himself conveys all the reason we need to get behind Porter. If you can
get past all the bloodshed and brutality, you'll find a surprisingly slick
and surprisingly smart action thriller in PAYBACK. The amazing thing is
that, by all rights, you shouldn't be able to get past it. Credit
Gibson for giving us the kind psycho you can't help cuddling up to.
On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 dark Porters: 7.
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